Erin Mendenhall knows the game is not over. In fact, she knows it isn’t a game.
That’s why the mayor of Salt Lake City issued an emergency order Wednesday to continue the mandate for people to wear face coverings in public places in the city as a way of slowing the spread of COVID-19, even though the Utah Legislature and the Salt Lake County Council decided to let those mandates expire April 10.
The state’s move makes about as much sense as unbuckling your parachute at about 100 feet above the ground because the drop so far has been uneventful.
Mendenhall’s legal authority to make that order is questionable. The reason for it is not. So even if the mandate amounts to no more than a strong suggestion at this point, it is a suggestion that everyone should follow.
Most of all it should give businesses who care for their staff and customers some moral, if not legal, back-up if their owners decide that everyone who comes into their privately owned premises should wear a mask. A rule still being enforced by entities including the Utah Transit Authority, most supermarkets and drug stores, the Utah Jazz, Real Salt Lake and the Salt Lake Bees and their facilities, Hogle Zoo, Salt Lake International Airport, state and local government buildings, schools, universities and all Intermountain Healthcare facilities.
Masks are perhaps not as important as they were a year ago. The true way to get life back to normal — schools, businesses, events — is the widespread vaccination of our population, which is moving forward, though not as quickly as it should. Extending the vaccines to those under the age of 16 hasn’t even begun yet.
But the argument that mask mandates are some sort of cruel infringement of our constitutional rights makes no more sense than claiming that laws requiring people to wear pants in public or not pipe their sewage into the street are government overreach. The freedom we are trying to protect is the freedom to not live in an environment that threatens people with a disease that, with each passing day, displays new risks and, in many cases, long-lasting effects.
The idea that people have the right to make their own risk assessments is false, as failure to take the right steps endangers others at least as much as the person without the mask or who passed on the jab.
Salt Lake City, particularly the low-income neighborhoods west of I-15, are still high-risk areas. A high percentage of the people who live there work in front-line service jobs that expose them to the coronavirus, but are far behind the more well-off neighborhoods of the East Bench in the percentage of them who have had even one of the two recommended vaccinations.
Mendenhall’s action has the support of many local businesses as well as those who advocate for low-income and minority populations. They see that the act of the Legislature ending the mask mandate was not based on science or on concern for public health, but on a feeling that their more vocal constituents were tired of masks and other precautions and wanted to get to what some lawmakers called the pandemic “endgame.”
(A result, perhaps, of watching too many Marvel Avengers movies. Not that it is possible to watch too many Marvel Avengers movies.)
Just about everyone wants the schools to reopen, the Jazz to play to a packed house, bars and restaurants to become wonderfully noisy, churches to resume loud singing and hearty handshakes and hugs and family gatherings to include three or four generations.
The way to get there is not to take the Legislature’s and Salt Lake County Council’s path to pretending the pandemic is over, but to take the steps necessary — masks now, vaccinations going forward — to really squash it so we can have our lives back.